Redefining an enigma

20 April 2017 | by Robert Thicknesse

The Exterminating Angel, Royal Opera House, London


Opera is a magpie, always stealing food from the neighbours. Plays from Shakespeare to Victor Hugo, poems, novels and stories, even a strip cartoon (for Leos Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen) have been grist to its mill. To date, films have been less pillaged, and without much success. Brokeback Mountain, Lost Highway, Notorious, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant: they flowered briefly before fading.  Not to be deterred, this month Covent Garden brings to the stage a version by an English composer, Thomas Adès, of one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated and enigmatic films, Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel of 1962, and is giving it the full works.

Adès’ work goes against the grain of contemporary opera in many ways: in a penny-pinching time, this is a big, expensive beast to follow his big, expensive version of The Tempest, first produced at Covent Garden in 2004. The director then, Tom Cairns, returned to stage the new piece’s world premiere last summer at Salzburg. It has an enormous cast – though the dramatis personae has been slimmed from Buñuel’s – sung by the flower of British talent. The huge orchestra includes batteries of percussion, guitar, miniature violins and that horror-film favourite, the freaky ondes Martenot. Adès’ music, too, is very far from minimal, with its exuberant piling-up of orchestral sounds and wallowing in fractured, extremist versions of Romantic idioms. Unlike much contemporary composition, it is never boring, often exhilarating, full of driving purpose, vision and direction.

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